Ichiro’s Malt and Mars Swaps Whiskies, Now Jointly Releases Blended Malt Bottlings
What you need to know:
- Whisky swapping between distilleries is a uniquely Japanese practice and was started at beverage giants Suntory and Nikka.
- This was done to blend multiple styles of whiskies for a more complex and flavorful whisky, which is how the likes of Hibiki came out!
- What is interesting about this partnership is that unlike Suntory, Chichibu and Mars are separate distilleries sharing whiskies, and also maturing each other’s whiskies.
- This means that Chichibu’s intense whiskies will be matured more slowly in Mars’ cold Nagano Alps climate, while Mars’ delicate whiskies will be matured faster in Chichibu’s temperate climate.
- This would serve to balance out each distillery’s whisky flavor profiles.
Whisky history tells us that Japanese whisky got its start copycatting the incumbent Scotch style of whisky and that Yamazaki came about from a Masataka Taketsuru (who founded Nikka Whisky) who had returned to Japan after studying whisky making at the Scotch distillery, Longmorn. Yet one aspect that is fairly unique to Japanese whiskies is the concept of swapping whisky stocks.
This practice of distilleries exchanging whiskies was first started by the likes of Suntory and Nikka, who would swap whiskies between the various distilleries under their stables. Suntory has Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita, while Nikka has Yoichi, Miyagikyo and even a Scotch distillery, Ben Nevis (which might be a surprise to some).
Suntory has several distilleries producing a wide variety of whisky styles that make for good blends. (Image Source: Suntory)
In fact this practice was the beginnings of Japanese whiskies growing into its own where the focus of distilleries started to center on blending whiskies rather than replicating a Scotch style which was all about that single malt life.
Yoichi is located in what looks like Santa Claus’ workshop in the North Pole. (Image Source: Yoichi)
Miyagikyo’s environment is much more temperate, allowing for faster whisky aging. (Image Source: Miyagikyo)
By having distilleries located in different environments and employing different techniques and using different ingredients, Suntory and Nikka would be able to produce a wide variety of styles of whiskies. Through swapping whiskies and subsequently blending them, Japanese distilleries were able to produce highly refined and complex whiskies.
And that kids is how we got the fan favorites Hibiki, which is a blend of Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita.
(Image Source: Asahi)
So the whole whisky swapping concept isn’t new. But what is interesting here is two-fold: 1. The whiskies swapped were between Chichibu and Mars, which are separate distilleries (unlike Yamazaki and Hakushu, which belong to Suntory), and 2. The whiskies were swapped back in 2015 and aged in their respective new homes, which means the Mars whisky swapped has been Chichibu-aged and vice versa.
Two up-and-coming distilleries, Saburomaru and Nagahama distilleries, also recently announced the release of blended whiskies made from swapped whisky stocks.
All of these swapping is not purely coincidental though. Beyond the blending benefits of having on hand varied styles of whiskies, swapping of whiskies is likely to pick up because of the new whisky regulations, which require distilleries to solely use Japan-made whiskies if they are to be allowed to use the “Japanese Whisky” title on their labels.
Most Ji-whisky distilleries are far smaller than beverage giants Suntory or Nikka. Chichibu’s small distillery space keeps its production very hands-on. (Image Source: Whisky.com)
Core to whisky blends is grain whiskies which ties the various styles of whiskies together seamlessly for that Japanese Harmony (Hibiki joke guys..). However, most Ji-whisky distilleries don’t have the resources to produce their own grain whiskies, and so swapping whisky stocks works as a great solution to acquiring much-need grain whiskies for blending.
For the Chichibu x Mars collaboration, the two bottles to be released are the “Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries Chichibu x Komagatake 2021” (10,200 bottles) at 53% abv, and the “Mars Whisky Malt Duo Komagatake x Chichibu 2021” (10,918 bottles) at 54% abv.
Chichibu’s temperate climate helps give its whiskies intense and robust. (Image Source: Live Japan)
Now, as I previously highlighted, what is really unique about this partnership is that Mar’s whiskies were aged by Chichibu and vice versa. So one has to wonder how that would affect the respective whiskies.
Chichibu has fairly seasonal weather, with hot and humid summers, but winters that can see temperatures drop to zero. This allows whiskies to mature and age faster, providing for a much more intense whisky.
Mars’ Shinshu Distillery is located high up in the Nagano Alps which is colder and less humid, slowing down whisky aging making for more gentle approachable whiskies. (Image Source: Spirited Singapore)
In contrast, Mars Shinshu Distillery finds itself at a high altitude nestled in the Nagano Alps. The area is tucked under heavy snowfall and temperate climates all year round, which contributes to a much slower maturation process. This coupled with the lower air pressure higher up, should make for a more fragrant whisky that is also more delicate.
This is really interesting given that Chichibu and Mars’ whiskies are quite the opposite. Chichibu’s whiskies are very intense, bursting of tropical fruits, peppery and hot, yet based on a thick caramel and vanilla base, meanwhile Mars’ whiskies are generally delicate, with wafts of floral notes and light fruits such as pears and quince. As a result Mars’ whiskies are mostly found to be more approachable and light as compared to Chichibu’s.
(Image Source: Asahi)
Switching up the maturation climate would seem to balance out each distillery’s whiskies flavor profiles perfectly, Chichibu’s intense whiskies maturation slowed down, whilst Mars’ delicate whiskies are hastened up in aging.
All in, a really interesting exercise and also a huge validation for Chichibu as a Japanese distillery to be taken seriously and safely in the big leagues. As with anything donning the words “Chichibu” these days, this is already a hotly anticipated release.